In many ways, Matthew Olzmann’s Contradictions in the Design exists as an outlier amongst current American poetry books. It’s concerned with politics but not consumed by them, considers the self without becoming solipsistic, uses humor but avoids glibness, embraces linearity and directness instead of fragmentation and ambiguities of language, all while eschewing a narrative arc or project-based cohesiveness. The poems in Olzmann’s sophomore collection thrill the reader with straightforward insights regarding the natural and human world thanks to their humor, diversity of topics, startling metaphors and profound observations.
As the partially blurred image of Michelangelo’s David on the cover suggests, the distortionary effects of time are amongst Olzmann’s many fascinations. In the opening poem, for example, he writes “you know how it works when you make a photocopy / of a photocopy? The eye fights to see the original, / which appears blurred in each new version.” This theme reemerges in “Build Now a Monument,” where an hourglass maker “no longer satisfied by the way time slips / through his life’s work” quits his job to craft a staircase that leads him so high that what “he left below is almost unrecognizable.” And in “The Gallery of Small Innovations” a Rubix cube becomes a metaphor for an entire life. At some point no solutions for it remain, and were it to make a sound it would be impossible to tell if it was the
murmur of friends gathered at the end
of a hallway, the splash of a single frog
into a pond surrounded by night,
or a quiver of bees so thick
around a tree that the tree can’t be seen.
By ruminating on existence’s temporality, Olzmann reveals a simultaneously stupendous and insignificant world in which his work searches for precious moments of fleeting sentiment and understanding.
Even when not at the center of a poem, time and by extension the vast extent and variety of history, involves itself. The book gives equal attention to a foot soldier approaching Medusa’s lair as it does a drug-addled raver who finds God in Moby’s music. Unicorn skulls, a Diego Rivera mural, pre-Columbian ceramic grave dogs, Lazarus, Keats, Eiffel, minotaurs and an imaginary “Department of Doubt” all appear in the collection. Reading through it reminds one of perusing an enormous, eclectic museum with Olzmann serving as wise, emotionally astute docent.
Despite its concerns with the transience of the universe, the book does not take up an isolationist stance. For example, several poems in “Contradictions” investigate humanity’s in general, and America’s in particular, fascination with and propensity for violence. In “Possum Drop,” Olzmann compares a peculiar North Carolina tradition of dropping a possum on New Years Eve, instead of a glowing ball, to barbarous Roman coliseum games and recognizes in it an unfortunately universal scene of:
The captive with a stone in his hand: terrified.
The muscled predator, all claw and fang: terrified.
Do you recognize the story yet? Always, that fear
in the circle. Always, that crowd: poised, ready.
In another, a personified musket sulks in a museum “humiliated” as school children abandon it for “flashier” instruments of war. We begin to sympathize with, even feel sorry for the musket that
stalked the battlefields,
a God without mercy. Blood on the blades
of grass, blood on its bayonet,
a hungry tooth. A celebration
thunder-stomping its way though the smoke.
Cannon songs. Banners waving in the dark.
There were fewer stars, it thinks, on the flag
back then, but more in the sky.
Whether specifically addressing our current politics or offering something so seemingly benign as a list of experiences shared with a lover, the pain inherent to the human condition seeps in as “war glistens on every TV screen. / ... the static from the speakers, like birds choking on garbage.” The looming presence of atrocities in the book underscores their inescapable place in the natural order. By including them, Olzmann reinforces the truth that even if focused on vast stretches of time and history, one cannot avoid intimate feeling.
While often outward looking, many of the poems have a present speaker offering perspective. Sometimes the inclusion provides merely a brief aside, such as recognizing how tedious naming all of the animals must have been for Adam, especially when considering the speaker himself has trouble balancing his checkbook. Some poems however only succeed because of the parallels made between a global object or event and the self. For example in a true testament to the book’s breadth of subjects, Olzmann combines a scientists’ erroneously constructed dinosaur skeleton with an anecdote in which a supermodel mistakenly kissed the speaker. Only by connecting them can he support the realization that
the imagined life ... having never existed
after tricking you into believing
it eats at you more slowly, lets you feel
every new rip in your gut
makes you beg
And on rare, but satisfying occasions, the poems ignore the outside world entirely and instead focus solely on a singular human’s situation, such as “In the Gallery of Severe Head Injuries” where a college kid monitors a man whose suicide attempt failed, his chest releasing “a heavy sound, as if, inside, a smaller man / drags an iron reliquary across a hardwood floor.”
Though varied in subject matter, a singular, wit-filled voice unites each poem. But rather than serve as a jester mocking everything, Olzmann’s humor often acts as a gut-punch awakening the reader to a haunting reality, such as when a newly discovered planet turns out to be so dense it would essentially condense into a colossal diamond, Olzmann notes “A field made of diamonds / is impossible to plow; shovels crumble and fold / like paper animals. So frequent is famine...” That metaphor also exemplifies his frequent and astounding use of figurative language. In Contradictions we find a man “shouting holes / into his children,” “cellphone towers staked into the ground like hypodermic needles,” and the hope that
the afterlife is one country road
after another, unseen from the highway,
passing through small towns the way
autumn passes through the wind chimes slung
above the front porches out here.
While most of the poems succeed as complete, cohesive wholes, the fact that they contain so many insular moments of language-related splendor expose Olzmann’s many talents.
Ultimately, Contradictions in the Design makes a strong argument for the value of collections that deal with diverse topics, themes, tones and perspectives that stand on their own. Depending on how one choses to focus, the world, much like a life, is simultaneously happy and horrific, funny and serious, about one’s self and tremendously unconcerned by it. Matthew Olzmann’s wide-reaching curiosities and emotional depth offers readers a unique perspective on our place within it.
Paul A. Christiansen was born and raised in Wisconsin, received an MFA from Florida International University and recently served as a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Atlanta Review, Carolina Quarterly, Pleiades, Quarter After Eight, Zone 3 and elsewhere.